Still pumping the squeezebox after all these years

By Lesley Sussman

You know what the difference is between an accordion and a cat?

Only the cost: They both make the same sounds when you squeeze them.

There certainly are accordion jokes like these a plenty out there, but for Walter Kuehr, 53, owner of Main Squeeze, a hole-in-the-wall accordion shop at 19 Essex St., these jokes aren’t at all funny.

That’s because since he was 6 years old, under the tutelage of his mother, the Frankfurt native with the quick smile and German accent has been squeezing out beautiful music on the accordion. And his passion for this noisy instrument, invented in Europe sometime in the 1800s, hasn’t been muted one bit yet.

Not only does Kuehr perform accordion-spiced tangos and Latin jazz with his nine-piece Last of the International Playboys band at local clubs, but he is also the founder of the legendary Main Squeeze Orchestra, an 18-piece all-female accordion orchestra that belts out everything from Madonna to Bach.

Kuehr laughs when he explains the origin of the all-girl accordion band, which he formed in 2002.

“I was at an accordion festival in Pennsylvania,” he recollected. “I came back and went to bed, and I had a dream that I would conduct an all-female accordion orchestra, and that the girls would wear pigtails and the music would be beautiful. It was the best dream I ever had — and it came true.”

Inside Kuehr’s cramped shop, located on a block crowded with Chinese-run businesses and Jewish shops selling religious items, a visitor finds rows of accordions — some of Kuehr’s own design — which range in price from $250 to $3,000.

There are also vintage squeezeboxes, photos, all kinds of accordion paraphernalia, CD’s, sheet music, instructional magazines, T-shirts, neckties and even a piano, which serves as accompaniment for occasional performances, concerts or readings that Kuehr holds here.

Kuehr speaks enthusiastically about his love of the accordion.

“It’s a very direct and passionate instrument,” he said. “You can hold it very close and you can almost embrace it. It’s a key instrument, a reed instrument, a wind instrument and you can get every effect you want from it. It has many different faces.”

The accordion maestro said he loved the instrument from the first day his mother gave him one and has never regretted devoting his life to it. His early interest in music, he added, spurred him on to study classical music and piano in Frankfurt for six years. Kuehr said that, later on, when he arrived in New York City in 1988, “One of the first things I did was attend a jazz workshop in Harlem.”

On the day before his visa was set to expire, Kuehr found true love, got married, and decided to stick around town. In 1996, with some partners, he opened his accordion outlet on Essex St. only because he lived in the building next door and the location was available.

“The rent was cheap and there weren’t so many Chinese here back then,” he recalled.

So how’s business? After all, didn’t the accordion’s popularity wane with the rise of Elvis, the electric guitar and rock ’n’ roll?

“Well, 20 or 30 years ago it didn’t have the hippest reputation,” Kuehr said. “I mean, I couldn’t play in a band with an accordion. I’d be ridiculed. But, today, the young people think it’s the hippest thing ever invented. Everyone wants to play it — especially young women — so business is getting better.”